If someone is “incapacitated,” this means that he is unable to react or respond in a clear manner to that which is going on around him. For example, an incapacitated person may be someone who has had too much alcohol and, as a result, has passed out. Anyone who then tries to communicate with this person will not receive a response from him because he is incapacitated. To explore this concept, consider the following incapacitated definition.

Definition of Incapacitated


  1. A term describing a person who is unable to react or respond due to a mental condition or as a result of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.



Incapacitated Person

An incapacitated person is a person who is unable to make a decision, or communicate that decision, as a result of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. An incapacitated person may also be unable to communicate due to having a mental or physical condition or a disability that limits them or prohibits them from doing so.

For example, an incapacitated person, as the term relates to the law, may be someone with Down Syndrome, as that person is incapable of making important legal decisions. In such a situation, this individual would require the help of his guardian or caretaker. Such an individual would be legally responsible for him and, as such, could make those important decisions on his behalf.

Individuals such as these are often appointed during what are called “guardianship proceedings.” A guardianship proceeding is initiated when a court determines that an individual is unable to manage at least some of his property, and that he is unable to make or communicate important decisions. The court assigns a guardian to an individual after determining that the individual is unable to provide for things like his own nutrition, medical care, and shelter.

Pennsylvania’s state statute 20 Pa.C.S. § 5501 defines an incapacitated person as:

“An adult whose ability to receive and evaluate information effectively and communicate decisions in any way is impaired to such a significant extent that he is partially or totally unable to manage his financial resources or to meet essential requirements for his physical health and safety.”

Incapacitating Injury

An incapacitating injury is any injury that prevents a person from being able to function as normally as he did before the injury. If a person is involved in a car accident, and his leg is so badly injured that he has difficulty walking for the rest of his life, then this would be considered an incapacitating injury. An incapacitating injury can include:

  • Severe cuts
  • Broken bones
  • Injuries to the head, chest, or abdomen
  • Being in a state of unconsciousness for a time after a car accident (this does not include momentary unconsciousness, or fainting)

Incapacitation Theory

Incapacitation theory is an idea associated with criminal law. Essentially, incapacitation here refers to when a freedoms, which he or she would otherwise have enjoyed, are restricted. The two most common ways a person can be legally incapacitated include being given the death penalty, or by being incarcerated in jail. The key principle of incapacitation theory is that if the person is put to death or locked up, then he is believed to be restrained from bringing any further harm to the community.

Other ways in which a person can be legally incapacitated include being put on probation or parole, having to wear an ankle monitor, and/or being put on house arrest. An ankle monitor contains a GPS tracker, which constantly tracks the individual’s location and reports back to the authorities if he steps outside of the designated area, which is usually his home.

This ties into house arrest, which is a situation wherein an individual is essentially serving a jail sentence in the comfort of his own home. While on house arrest, the individual wears the ankle monitor so that, if he leaves home for any reason, the authorities are alerted.

As resources were getting used up, however, authorities came up with a process known as selective incapacitation. Selective incapacitation refers to the practice of only locking up those individuals who are believed to pose the greatest threat to society. The threat is measured both by the crime the individual committed, and his likelihood to commit a similar crime in the future.

Some believe selective incapacitation is a ingenious way to deal with the limited resources problem. However, others feel that it creates false-positive predictions, and that the wrong people are deemed to be the most dangerous. Not only that, but they feel the system also creates false-negatives, which is arguably worse. In the latter situation, instead of locking up people who aren’t as great of a threat as they are perceived to be, those who are being set free are actually the ones society needs to be more worried about.

Incapacitated Example Involving California’s “Three Strikes” Law

An example of an incapacitated person being prosecuted to the extreme can be found in the case of Ewing v. California, which was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. This case incorporated California’s “Three Strikes” law, which says that if a defendant is convicted of a third felony after his first two felony convictions were for serious or violent crimes, the sentence to be handed down for the third felony is automatic life imprisonment. Essentially, it’s “three strikes, and you’re out.”

Here, Gary Ewing stole three expensive golf clubs in 2000 from a pro shop in California and was caught by a store employee. He was tried and convicted of felony grand theft of personal property, and this was the charge that earned him a life sentence. Prior to this conviction, Ewing had a lengthy criminal record dating back to 1984, and ranging from felony grand theft auto, to trespassing, and battery.

Under California law, Ewing’s crime of felony grand theft is what the state considers a “wobbler.” A wobbler is a charge that the trial judge and prosecutor can reduce to a misdemeanor at their discretion. Here, despite Ewing’s request for the judge to “wobble,” the judge refused and sentenced Ewing under the Three Strikes law to 25 years-to-life in prison, due to his extensive criminal history. Specifically, the judge pointed to a string of burglaries and robberies that Ewing had committed back in 1993 and for which he had already served a sentence of nine years in prison.

Ewing appealed his conviction to the California Court of Appeals, arguing that his sentence was improper due to the fact that his crime was non-violent, and that the value of the goods that he stole was barely over $1,000. However, the Court upheld the trial Court’s decision and, when Ewing appealed to the California Supreme Court, the latter denied to review the case.

Ewing then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he lost there too, with the Court holding fast to the rules under the Three Strikes Law, and affirming the decision of the lower court. Said the Court in its Decision:

“In examining Ewing’s claim that his sentence is grossly disproportionate, the gravity of the offense must be compared to the harshness of the penalty. Even standing alone, his grand theft should not be taken lightly. The California Supreme Court has noted that crime’s seriousness in the context of proportionality review; that it is a ‘wobbler’ is of no moment, for it remains a felony unless the trial court imposes a misdemeanor sentence.

The trial judge justifiably exercised her discretion not to extend lenient treatment given Ewing’s long criminal history. In weighing the offense’s gravity, both his current felony and his long history of felony recidivism must be placed on the scales. Any other approach would not accord proper deference to the policy judgments that find expression in the legislature’s choice of sanctions.

Ewing’s sentence is justified by the State’s public-safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons, and amply supported by his own long, serious criminal record. He has been convicted of numerous offenses, served nine separate prison terms, and committed most of his crimes while on probation or parole. His prior strikes were serious felonies including robbery and residential burglary. Though long, his current sentence reflects a rational legislative judgment that is entitled to deference.” [Emphasis added.]

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Parole – The release of a prisoner before the completion of his sentence on the promise of good behavior.
  • Probation – The postponement of a jail sentence in favor of allowing a person convicted of a crime the opportunity to serve as an active member of his community, rather than going to jail.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.